Google Chromebook: Is It For Me?

Welcome to the first of a recurring series here on my Making Technology Simpler blog: “Is It For Me?” I’ll explain a product or technology, then help you figure out if it meets your needs. This week’s subject is the Google Chromebook.

Chromebook laptops
Google Chromebooks (Photo courtesy of

Google Chromebooks are a series of inexpensive laptops with great battery life, strong integration with Google, and little maintenance needed.

Chromebooks use an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS…the whole operating system is basically the Chrome Internet browser that many people use on Windows and Mac computers. The computer hardware is made by companies like Acer and HP.


Here’s another thing that makes Chromebooks unique among laptops: the whole operating system is designed to be used with Internet access, and the hard drive in the computer is tiny.

Google intended for these computers to be used in conjunction with Google’s cloud storage, so photos will need to be stored in Google+ and documents stored in Google Drive. (I wrote about cloud storage here.) With everything stored in the cloud, there’s no need for a big hard drive. The benefit of this is the computer will boot up very quickly.

This reliance on cloud storage has a couple other ramifications. On the positive side, no data backups are needed, since almost everything is in Google’s cloud. And once the computer needs to be replaced, you can sign into your next Chromebook with your Google account, and all your emails, documents, etc. will be available immediately. No file transferring necessary.


On the flip side, you will be limited in what your Chromebook can do without Internet access. You can do some document creation, for example, and the document will save to Google Drive when you connect to the Internet again. Internet access is becoming more widespread, however, and some Chromebooks will allow you to also connect to a 4G network through a carrier like T-Mobile.

Because almost everything you do on a Chromebook involves Internet access, the speed of the computer itself will be heavily influenced by the speed of your Internet connection. If you regularly use a slow connection, be prepared to pay for faster speeds to really enjoy a speedy Chromebook experience.

The other main limitation of Chromebooks is that you can’t install PC or Mac programs on it. So if you really need the full version of Microsoft Office or some specialized accounting program for your work, a Chromebook isn’t for you (unless it’s as a secondary computer). You’re limited to using Google’s apps and others available through the Chrome web store.

Ease of use

Chromebooks are low maintenance devices, partly because they update automatically and Google says they’re very secure and have no need for antivirus software.

Setup is also easy, to the degree that you’re already part of Google’s services. If you already use Google for email, documents, photos, and music, your new Chromebook will be ready to go as soon as you open it and sign in with your Google account.

If you use iTunes for your music and store documents or photos on your current computer, you’ll want to transfer all of it to Google’s appropriate online service before you make the switch to a Chromebook. (And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, know that they won’t sync with music on your Chromebook.)

Remember, third-party apps like iTunes or Microsoft Office can’t be installed on a Chromebook. So you’ll need to use a Google service or a third-party service that can be accessed online (such as Pandora for music streaming or the online version of Microsoft Office).

Is it for me?

A Chromebook might be great for you, if:

  • You use Google for all of your email, documents, photos, media, and calendar (or are willing to move all those things to Google)
  • You have Internet access almost all the time
  • You need a very portable computer with a battery that lasts all day
  • A low up-front cost is important to you

You should probably stay away from a Chromebook, if:

  • You need an application that only runs on a PC or Mac, like Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, or iTunes
  • You prefer to store your documents, photos, or media locally (i.e. on your computer’s hard drive)
  • Your computer needs to handle intense tasks, like games or video editing

Have you seen or heard about another device or technology that’s made you ask, “Is it for me?” Let me know below, and I’ll write about it soon.



Smart TVs – Television buying guide part 2

Note: this is the second part of my TV buying guide. The first post discussed TV resolutions and connections.

If you’ve been shopping for TVs lately, you’ve come across the term “smart TV.” So what’s a smart TV? It’s a TV that connects to the Internet and allows you to watch content from online: movies from Netflix, TV shows from Hulu, or (my guilty pleasure) YouTube compilations of cats falling clumsily.

Skype on a smart TV
Your family can literally be larger than life with video calls on a smart TV

The fact that the TV is connected to the Internet also allows for more unusual uses, such as Skyping with an attached webcam or listening to music through your surround sound speakers with an online music service like Pandora.

These activities used to be relegated to your computer. Now you can enjoy them in your living room on the biggest screen in your house. It’s fantastic to have those abilities.

But I’m still not sure my next TV will be a smart TV. And here’s why.

A potential downside: longevity

Ever since televisions were invented, they served as passive screens simply displaying the video signal fed into them. The video signals came from devices such as antennas, then cable and satellite dishes, then VCRs and DVD players.

A smart TV is different; it’s essentially an all-in-one computer, like an iMac. There’s a small, streamlined computer housed behind the screen, connecting to the Internet and serving you content from various online sources. It works well, and frankly I’ve been pretty impressed by how it works on demo units I’ve seen in stores.

But how long will that computer, and the “smart TV” experience it provides, feel quick and modern?

My suspicion is that the TV’s computer “guts” will feel slow and the software will feel outdated long before the TV screen itself seems inadequate. (This is the same reason I’m skeptical of cars with a built-in screen and computer system.)

Now, it could be argued I’ve kept using my current TV longer than the average person…but I doubt it. I won’t embarrass my parents by publishing exactly how old their TVs are, but both are much older than their computer. I suspect the same is true for most people.

If you tend to get a new TV every few years, this may not be much of a problem for you. But for those of you who don’t, there are other options for accessing online content.

Another option: streaming boxes

Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s new Fire TV streaming box

In fact, you may already own a device that can access online content. I’m thinking primarily of streaming boxes, such as a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Chromecast. Gaming consoles such as a Playstation or Xbox also have some streaming connectivity, and so do many Blu-ray players. And of course, your laptop might also able to connect to your TV when you want to watch something on it.

The benefit of a smart TV over these is simplicity (in theory). Instead of connecting another box and having another remote, it’s built into the TV itself. The ease of use may vary widely, depending on the TV manufacturer and the software it makes (more on that later). But in general, it means one less box to connect, one less cable to plug in, and one less remote to keep track of.

However, streaming media boxes such as a Roku or Apple TV cost $100 or less, and the Google Chromecast costs only about $35. I can live with having to replace one of those with the latest version every few years. I don’t see myself replacing my whole TV that often.

My worry is that when the computer components of your smart TV are out-of-date, you’ll be left with a screen that still works great. You’ll have three options: buy a new smart TV, use your smart TV with its slow or frustrating interface, or buy one of the aforementioned streaming boxes to do what your smart TV no longer can…which is exactly the thing you were avoiding by buying the smart TV in the first place.

That’s why I won’t be paying extra to get a smart TV. A dumb TV will still allow me to plug in my antenna, Blu-ray player (which streams Netflix, YouTube, etc.), and even my computer if I want.

If you don’t use or plan to use streaming video services, then a smart TV would probably be just adding an extra layer of complexity to your living room relaxation.

That being said, you rarely have the choice between a smart TV and a “dumb TV” these days. At the more expensive end of the TV market, almost every single TV is a smart TV. If you’re getting a TV above $1000, it will almost certainly be a smart TV, and even most TVs above $500 are smart TVs now.

Even if you don’t plan to use smart TV features, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with one, and you might be surprised how much you enjoy some of the features on it.

What to look for

So what separates one smart TV from another? The apps that are available and the televisions’ ease of use.

Samsung app store
Samsung’s smart TV app store

Almost every smart TV includes Netflix support, but if you want to use other streaming services or social media, make sure all those apps are either pre-installed or available through the manufacturer’s app store. If you want to use your new big screen for video calls, see if there’s an included camera or if you’ll need to connect a webcam on your own. Most smart TVs connect via Wi-Fi, but make sure yours does, because you probably won’t want to run an ethernet cable to it to provide Internet access.

The other big question: how easy-to-use are the smart services? A smart TV that’s frustrating to use defeats the whole purpose. If you stream content from multiple Internet services, see if the TV will show you results from all the services when you search for ‘Forrest Gump.’ Does the menu feel cluttered, or is it easy to find the app you’re wanting to use?

Samsung QWERTY remote
An example of a QWERTY remote

A key factor in ease-of-use is the remote. A full QWERTY keyboard on the remote will help you search much more quickly. Newer smart TVs come with remotes that let you move an on-screen pointer by aiming the remote at the screen (a la the Wii remote). Are there shortcut buttons on the remote for the streaming services you’ll use most often?


LG smart TV interface
LG smart TV interface

Differentiating between smart TVs is difficult to do unless you’re using them in person. If you’re looking at the latest and greatest sets, the manufacturers’ websites may give good demos of their smart TV features. For last year’s models or budget brands, you’ll probably need to try out the smart TV at a friend’s house or in a store.

Think of smart TVs as an all-in-one computer, one with an operating system you’ve never used before. You shouldn’t buy just based off the screen size and quality; you’ll want to see how it actually functions first.

In short, I don’t recommend you pay more for a smart TV, if a dumb TV model fits your budget and suits your needs. But if you do get a smart TV, make sure you’re getting one that’s easy to use and has the apps to meet your viewing habits. That will probably mean looking for a model from a top brand.

Speaking of brand names, next week’s post will cover which brands to look for, and how much brand name matters. Plus, what time of year is best to buy a TV, and more!


Got an idea for a future blog topic? Send it to me below. Thanks!

Taking care of your batteries

Pop quiz: do you own a lithium-ion battery?

battery charging

Answer: YES! In fact, you are probably reading this blog post on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop (all of which contain these batteries).

By nature, all lithium-ion batteries have a limited lifespan – typically 2-4 years. But the actual lifespan depends a lot on how the battery is used.

So that’s what we’re going to look at today: how can you use your batteries so they last as long as possible before needing to be replaced?

Almost all portable gadgets are powered with lithium-ion batteries. Basically, if it doesn’t run on AA, AAA, or the like, it runs on a lithium-ion battery: cameras, cordless drills, electric cars, etc.

The batteries used by most people most of the time are the ones in cell phones, tablets, and laptops. But the following tips apply to all lithium-ion batteries[1].

DON’T use the battery all the way to 0% regularly. 

It’s best to recharge the battery before the device turns itself off. For example, use your computer to write some emails, then plug it back in to charge.

DO fully discharge the device about once a month.

This helps the device give you an accurate estimate of how much longer it will run before needing to be recharged. Every now and then just run the device on battery power until it gives you a low battery warning and powers down.

DON’T use it plugged in while the device is fully charged. 

I’m looking at you, person-who-owns-a-laptop-but-uses-it-like-a-desktop! Your laptop has a battery for a reason; if you use it you’ll help it last longer.

DO store the device long-term at around 50% charged.

If you plan to store the battery unused for months at a time (think power tools put away for the winter), don’t store them fully charged or fully depleted. Aim for about half-charged, more or less.

DON’T store the device in extreme temperatures.

Extreme temperatures are a very bad thing for lithium-ion batteries, particularly heat. So hot cars and attics are not good places for batteries or devices with batteries. Also, if you have your phone in a case and notice it getting it warm/hot while charging, removing it from the case to charge will help keep it healthy.

DO charge it fully before using it for the first time.

When you buy a new device with a lithium-ion battery, start by completely charging the device before you turn it on for the first time.

In short, if your gadget has a battery, use it. Try to keep it around room temperature when possible.

Fill out the form below to give me an idea or ask a question. Thanks!

1 – Sources: Ars Technica, Apple, and Battery University

What’s wrong with Windows XP?

Living dangerously can be exciting! That’s why some people love skydiving or rock-climbing. On the other hand, using Windows XP is dangerous, but not exciting. If you use a computer with Windows XP (or have a friend who does), this quick post is really important for you! (If you’re not sure, Microsoft’s website will tell you right away.)

Microsoft has ended support for Windows XP[1]. It’s a 12-year-old operating system, and this is a normal thing Microsoft does as it continues to introduce new versions of Windows. But it’s a big, big, BIG deal for people still using XP.

OS market share
Operating system market share as of June 2014 (Photo courtesy of

Why is this a big deal? First of all, check out the chart to the right. 1 out of 4 computers still runs Windows XP (the green wedge of the pie). That’s a lot of people affected by this end-of-support date! So if you’re still a Windows XP user, you’re not alone.

So what makes Windows XP dangerous? Well, Microsoft (and Apple) regularly offer free updates for their operating systems that users can download or install. These updates are primarily help protect your computer from newly-discovered hacks, viruses, and other bad stuff out there. Microsoft will no longer be providing these security updates for Windows XP!

In other words, Windows XP computers will become prime targets for hackers, because there are so many computers still running it and the hackers know Microsoft will no longer fix vulnerabilities that are found. Microsoft patched about 100 XP vulnerabilities last year alone[2]. This year they will patch ZERO (again, this isn’t a mistake by Microsoft; it’s normal procedure).

So what should you do? Well you have two options:

Option 1: Install Windows 8 on your current computer. I DON’T RECOMMEND THIS, mainly because if you have Windows XP, your computer likely doesn’t have the power to handle the new operating system well, if at all. (It will also cost $119 or $199, depending on the version.)

Option 2: Buy a new computer. Look, I hate telling you to go spend money. But Windows XP isn’t safe to use anymore! My recommendation is to buy a new computer with a newer operating system included. Feel free to check out this great laptop buying guide from Walt Mossberg or my post last week on Macs vs. PCs.

Bottom line: you’ve got to move on from Windows XP for security reasons, but a newer computer and software will serve you well. 

If you want some danger in your life, I’d recommend skydiving or rock climbing instead of Windows XP.


What topics do you want to hear about? Submit your question or comment below!

1 – Windows XP support ended April 8, 2014.
2 – According to

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